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Ex-BART officer's early release from prison draws protest

Johannes Mehserle shot and killed an unarmed Oscar Grant III at a BART station in 2009 and was sentenced in November to two years. But now Mehserle is scheduled to be released Monday. Grant's relatives and supporters plan protests in L.A. and Oakland.

June 12, 2011|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • This fight is not over," says Cephus Johnson, who thinks the ex-BART officer who shot his nephew should have received a longer sentence. "I am not going away.
This fight is not over," says Cephus Johnson, who thinks the ex-BART… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Family members and supporters of the unarmed man killed in 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer called the former officer's scheduled release "a travesty" and said Saturday that they planned to hold a series of protests in Oakland and Los Angeles over the next few days.

Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry ruled Friday that Johannes Mehserle, who was sentenced last November to serve two years, should be released Monday because of credits for time served and good behavior.

A Los Angeles jury convicted Mehserle last July of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station on New Year's Day 2009. The racially charged case sparked riots and protests in Oakland, followed by more unrest when Mehserle was not convicted of a more serious charge and was sentenced to just two years.

Grainy video footage of the shooting — captured by several witnesses — showed Mehserle, who is white, firing one round into the back of Grant, who was black. Alameda County prosecutors accused the officer of murder. Mehserle, 29, testified that he meant to use his Taser but mistakenly grabbed his pistol.

"It's a travesty," Grant's uncle Cephus Johnson said Saturday at a meeting of community organizers preparing to protest Mehserle's release. "This fight is not over and I am not going away."

The family and community activists who gathered at a South Los Angeles library called on the U.S. Justice Department to bring charges of civil rights violations against Mehserle, BART police and the BART administration.

The first protest is scheduled for Sunday in Oakland, beginning at 3 p.m. at the Fruitvale BART station and winding up in downtown Oakland. On Monday, demonstrators are being called to gather outside the Justice Department's offices in downtown Los Angeles and downtown Oakland.

"The criminal justice system is a racist institution, and people like Judge Perry keep it intact," Johnson said. He took issue with Perry for dismissing a finding by jurors that Mehserle intentionally used a gun, thereby reducing Mehserle's maximum possible sentence.

"Had Judge Perry not overturned the guilty verdict that the jury came back with, Johannes Mehserle would still be incarcerated," Johnson said.

Perry did not respond to a request for comment, but he said during sentencing that he had failed to provide jurors with clear instructions on the gun allegation and that the evidence was insufficient to show that the officer used his firearm deliberately.

Perry had the option of releasing Mehserle on probation but instead sentenced him to the minimum possible prison term.

The California Code of Judicial Ethics does not allow judges to comment publicly on a pending court proceeding. Mehserle is appealing his conviction.

Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, whose legal defense fund is paying for Mehserle's lawyers, said the former officer had expressed "extreme remorse" over the shooting.

"I don't know what more the family or the public can want from him," Cottingham said. "He was given the appropriate sentence. He served the time.… He was not given any break or special consideration because he was an officer. It's time to let him try to get on with his life."

Mehserle, whose trial was moved to Los Angeles because of fears that he could not get a fair hearing in Oakland, offered a tearful apology in court, saying, "Nothing I could ever say or do could heal the wound I created."

Oakland officials said they planned to deploy extra police officers starting Sunday.

"The city of Oakland remains committed to respecting peaceful demonstrations," Mayor Jean Quan said in a letter to residents Friday. "However, we will not tolerate vandalism or violence in our community."

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